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Top 10 L.A. Dance Shows of 2013

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty
Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty
Photo courtesy of Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

Dancers, their artistic directors and the choreographers know whether a particular performance was their best -- certainly far better than an audience member seeing a single performance, even a semi-knowledgeable one that presumes to write about dance.

So in our look back at the year in dance, instead of "best," we thought we'd look at "significance," which emerges in context of previous visits to the same companies and other events in the L.A. dance scene.

Amid the hundreds of dance performances this year -- local companies, pick-up troupes and touring companies -- these were the most significant.

10. The Bourne supremacy

Time was American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet and major international dance companies would visit for several weeks of performances. Today, Matthew Bourne and Twyla Tharp are almost alone in being able to draw an audience for more than a long weekend, and do so by straddling the dance and theatre worlds and drawing audiences from both. Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty marked his return to L.A., the city that launched him in America with his audacious Swan Lake with male swans. His reconsideration of Sleeping Beauty was populated with his seductive bad boys, but also envisioned that when awake, the title character was a spunky young thing reminiscent of Isadora Duncan.

9. Making L.A. the stage

The term "site-specific" is loosely tossed into a myriad of dance performances, but few understand and present the concept as well as Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre. This assemblage of dancers, actors, writers, musicians and choreographers have long drawn L.A. out of its cars to wander through important, entrancing, but often overlooked cultural landscapes. This year has been busier and more inventive than ever for the company, with a series involving a scaffold-like structure that moved from Glendale to Mid-City to East L.A. with performances in collaboration with local troupes in each locale; another traveling series, At the Oasis, referencing a small mid-century RV that became the stage for performers at sites all over metro-L.A.; and finally, the full-blown Groundskeepers, a moving (in both senses of the word) farewell to a historically significant hospital being converted to affordable housing, but not before it was celebrated as a site of healing and a site of performance. Runner up on the site-specific front: Blue 13's delirious use of the al fresco Ford Amphitheater in Fire and Powder, an audience participation version of Romeo & Juliet with the audience able to dance along in one part like a flash mob and act as cheering squads either backing Romeo and his Bollywood Montague clan or supporting Juliet and her Capulet hip hop crew.

Heidi Duckler Dance Theater and the "Oasis"
Heidi Duckler Dance Theater and the "Oasis"
Photo courtesy of Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre

8. Celebrating dance festivals

The past year saw a surge in local dance festivals that offered a chance to catch up with favorites and sort of speed date unfamiliar troupes. The short individual appearances offered a brief introduction to each company without having to commit to a full evening. Some festivals are little more than shared production expense, others have a theme, but the grandmommy of local festivals remains Celebrate Dance! Thanks to producer Jamie Nicols' good taste and careful year-long viewing of local dance performances, Celebrate Dance! annually attracts sell out audiences to view a diverse, curated line up of SoCal dance troupes. The audience often finds new favorites deserving a full evening and sometimes, an ongoing relationship. Runner up: the John Anson Ford Summer Dance Series, which functions as an unofficial summer-long festival celebrating the role of dance in L.A.'s diverse communities. With a planned remodel, next summer promises to be even more significant.

Dancers of ate9 dANCE cOMPANY
Dancers of ate9 dANCE cOMPANY
Photo courtesy of ate9 dANCEcOMPANY

7. New girl in town

Choreographer Danielle Agami relocated herself and her Ate9 dANCE cOMPANY from Seattle and has served notice that she and her company will be major players here in L.A. After tantalizing samplings at several local dance festivals, the company served up full evening performance of Sally Meets Stu, displaying Agami's command of what is known as Gaga, a movement aethestic developed by Ohad Naharin of Israel's Batsheva Dance where Agami danced. Her choreographic skills also were recruited for two disparate projects -- the dance element for Benjamin Millipied's L.A. Dance Project in the headphone opera Invisible Cities and a commissioned work for ballerina Melissa Barak for the debut of her Barak Ballet. Runner up: Former New York City Ballet and Los Angele Ballet dancer Melissa Barak launched her eponymous troupe Barak Ballet with splendid dancers and a program reflecting an adventurous sensibility, including selecting Agami, who created a courageous solo that mostly kept Barak in a non-balletic position prone on the floor.

 

Aivin Ailey American Dance Theater
Aivin Ailey American Dance Theater
Photo by Paul Kolnik

6. A dance company that had some work done

A regular SoCal visitor, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has always had astonishingly beautiful dancers who are also astonishing dancers, but in recent years seemed somewhat in a rut when not performing its signature Revelations. New director Robert Battle brought a program that included Jiri Kylian's masterwork Petite Mort. Any concern that the Ailey dancers were not up to Kylian's challenging choreography was dispelled. L.A. audiences saw a company that had upped its game and found new directions without losing what makes the company distinctive. If this last program is where Battle is heading, its next visit should be eagerly awaited.

John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid
John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid
Photo courtesy of Hamburg Ballet

5. The return of the story master

John Neumeier is one of the best storytellers choreographing today. His Nijinsky and Lady of the Camillias are masterpieces, almost cinematic in the interweaving of dance and story. For unknown reasons, New York critics have never warmed to him, but West Coast audiences are more sympatico. San Francisco Ballet brought Neumeier's Little Mermaid into its repertoire and L.A. finally got to see it this year via Neumeier's own Hamburg Ballet. Created for the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth, this is not the Disney version but closer to Andersen's original story with the author included as a character. Runner up in the story master category: Eifman Ballet's Rodin, which recounted the celebrated sculptor's tragic relationship with muse/sculptress Claudine Claudel.

4. A mother and child reunion

This year, a 10th anniversary show was added to the National Choreographers Initiative's annual summer workshop production. The addition underscored the importance of NCI's role nurturing new choreography. Each summer, director Molly Lynch assembles a quartet of established and emerging choreographers who work with a dozen top notch ballet dancers. With no requirement of a finished product, the choreographers have an enviable freedom to explore movement ideas before seeing those ideas in a performance that concludes the intense three weeks. Of the 37 works begun at NCI over the past decade, 22 have gone on to full performance and joined one or more ballet companies' repertoire. The 10th anniversary program reprised excerpts from some of the finished products birthed during previous NCI summers. The dancers this year had the added bonus of working with prior years' choreographers for the anniversary show, then this year's foursome, before a separate performance of the new explorations. Runner up: The 10th anniversary performance of Pat Taylor's JazzAntiqua Music & Dance, which included presentations to a number of respected dance teachers along with performances reflecting Taylor's unwavering commitment to dance with live music.

 

Los Angeles Ballet's Allyne Noelle in "Rubies"
Los Angeles Ballet's Allyne Noelle in "Rubies"
Photo by Reed Hutchinson

3. Bring on the Balanchine

In Balanchine Gold and Balanchine Red, Los Angeles Ballet presented seven George Balanchine masterworks divided into two separate programs, an astonishing number that only a few major companies outside of the late George Balanchine's home company New York City Ballet dare do, let alone in one season. Occasionally, a touring company like American Ballet Theater will bring a Balanchine ballet as part of a mixed bill, but this was an unparalleled chance to see the scope of the oeuvre many regard as the most important an influential choreographer of the 20th century. Co-artistic directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary both danced with Balanchine's NYCB and Balanchine personally selected Neary to stage his ballets for other companies. LAB included two seldom seen ballets La Valse and La Sonambula along with sterling performances of benchmark masterworks Serenade, Concerto Barocco, Tchaikovsky pas de deux, Four Temperaments and the Rubies section from the full-length Jewels. In July, the Music Center invited LAB to perform Rubies in Grand Park, drawing more than 3,000 to the free performance and setting a park attendance record.

BODYTRAFFIC dancers in Kyle Abraham's "Kollide"
BODYTRAFFIC dancers in Kyle Abraham's "Kollide"
Photo courtesy of BODYTRAFFIC

2. Everything's coming up roses -- and capital letters

The riveting contemporary dance troupe BODYTRAFFIC has been turning heads in L.A. for several years, but this year artistic directors Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett, moved the company toward the big leagues, being named one of Dance Magazine's 25 to watch, performing with the L.A. Philharmonic, gaining rave reviews in San Francisco and staging a fall concert featuring a new work by Kyle Abraham, New York City's choreographer of the moment. A number of excellent local companies have struggled to move to the next level, but outside of Diavolo, few have succeeded. BodyTraffic's emergence may chart a path for others.

1. Looking back at a life well danced

In a multi-venue series of events extending over a month, the now-legendary Trisha Brown's inventive choreography was celebrated in the Trisha Brown Retrospective from the stage of Royce Hall, the lobby of the Hammer Museum and the rooftops of the Getty Center, not to mention an array of non-performance events considering Brown's contributions to modern dance. Now if those venues would focus a bit of that same attention supporting and presenting SoCal dance, the next generation of Trisha Browns might be cultivated right here.


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